Why Can’t You Just Be More Confident?

I may have been born lacking the confidence gene.

When I was in third grade, a little 8-year-old girl going to primary school in Beijing, my homeroom teacher gave my mom a call and asked her to come over so they could talk about me. “She’s a loner,” she told my mom, as I sat in front of them, looking at my feet. “She won’t play with other children.”

They both turned and looked at me with piercing gazes of concern. “You need to talk to her.”

My mom later sat me down, face-to-face on the soft chambray couch.

“Do you not want to play with other children?” She asked in a gentle voice.

I shook my head.

“Then why won’t you talk to them?”

“I’m scared they won’t like me,” I said.

“Why wouldn’t they like you?”

I was mute.

The truth is, I didn’t know why. I moved through life constantly worried that my peers would not accept me, expectant of rejection yet terrified by it. There didn’t seem to be any rational explanation for why I felt this way. I hadn’t been bullied much in childhood, and I was never in a disadvantaged position in any way. Yet my self-esteem was ridiculously low. I couldn’t even be bribed with $20 to go ask a stranger on the street what time it was — 
I was so worried he would reject or judge me.

This issue extended to my pre-teen years. Though I was lucky to eventually find good friends in elementary school, summer camp every summer was still lonersville. I would spend lunch breaks listening to my disc-man and reading by myself in a corner of the gym, pretending that being alone was a choice. It wasn’t. I craved the company of other kids, but I didn’t know how to approach them. I was worried they wouldn’t think I was cool.

It also didn’t help that i was constantly traveling back and forth between Beijing and Toronto, and needed to adapt to the ‘kid customs’ of both cultures. The disconnected experience left me feeling inadequate in both worlds.

As I grew older and went to college, the social anxiety lessened, but the innate lack of confidence behind it remained. I learned how to talk to people, how to “hang” and appear cool, but when it came to school and my internship work, I realized I was constantly undervaluing and underselling myself. When people praised me for my work, I laughed nervously, not knowing how to respond. To acknowledge that I was actually good seemed ludicrous and made me feel uncomfortable. “Sorry” was a persistent word in my vocabulary, and I began to notice how much I used it.

“Sorry, can I talk to you?”

“Sorry, can I show you my work?”

After years of “sorries,” I read an article about how many females, especially Asian females, felt the need to constantly apologize, and how detrimental that was to their career. I mapped my constant “sorries” to my frustrations at work, where I felt I was struggling to get my efforts acknowledged despite knowing that I was putting out excellent work.

Cartoon by New York based artist Yao Xiao

I also began noticing how my insecurities were affecting my relationships, in which I constantly questioned how much the other person liked me and looked for signs to corroborate their lack of affection. It was almost like I believed I wasn’t worth much and couldn’t wait to be proven right.

It dawned on me that I was doing it all wrong. I needed to launch ME 2.0.

But how could I become more confident?

I couldn’t find a manual anywhere. People told me I just needed to believe in myself. Some people said it needed to be “built,” but it wasn’t clear to me how to lay the foundation. Some people told me to look into a mirror every day and repeat “YOU ARE AWESOME! YOU ARE AWESOME!” But that didn’t get me much apart from some weird looks from my roommate.

Eventually, I learned how to fake it. I became more and more aware of my “sorries,” my shy stumbles, and the things that made me feel uncomfortable, like approaching people at networking events and acknowledging my own strengths. I pinched myself whenever I was about to say sorry, and when I met new people, I talked up my game until I felt uncomfortable, because I realized that my level of “uncomfortable” was actually other people’s “normal,” even when I thought I was being ridiculously cocky.

I forced myself to do things I was uncomfortable doing, and constantly put myself out there despite being terrified. I moved house two times since college, once to Hong Kong and once to San Francisco, and both times I had to build my life over practically from ground zero, start new careers and find new friends.

Putting myself in situations that were foreign and unnerving and then realizing that I could successfully adapt without ever being called a cocky asshole helped me feel more comfortable in my own skin. Knowing that I’ve had incredible experiences that make me unique, and being lucky enough to have friends who affirm that, has also helped.

Being humble and self-deprecating was always my way of getting close to people, because I knew people could relate to others who shared the same insecurities. Though I still think this is true, and that it is in part what makes me a relatable, empathetic person, I also realized that being confident (or faking confidence) attracts people too — and that having the right mix of confidence and humility is what really attracts the people I’d want to be around the most.

But does that mean I fixed it? The problem?

I wish I could tell you that now, at the ripe old age of 25, I’ve figured it all out — the secret to building confidence and self-esteem. But that would be untruthful.

I still feel insecure regularly, I still often feel like I’m underselling myself, and I still hate people who ask me “Why can’t you just be more confident?”

I’ve gotten to a point in my life where people meet me and assume I’m an extravert, and it makes me smile because it proves how many miles I’ve come from that terrified little girl in the third grade classroom. But confidence is still something I struggle with all the time.

Though I don’t have the perfect answer to “how” to build it, I know the first step starts with being more aware of that lack of confidence, and to recognize and target the symptoms it produces. I also think it helps to know that other people are in that struggle with you.

And so I wrote this, and hope that nobody will ever ask you why you can’t “just” be more confident. You can, but it will take work, and it will take time, and lot of it will suck.

But do it anyway, for yourself.

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